Would you be okay if it was your kids in uniform going off to a shooting war with the Russians over Ukraine?
The whole idea seems fantastic, ridiculous. We tend to dismiss it as unimaginable but giving it short shrift can be lethal.
Earlier this week three words caught my attention - "une guerre totale." That was the prospect French president Francois Hollande foresaw if there was no quick resolution to the conflict between the warring sides in the Ukraine and between Moscow and Kiev.
Total war. That's something we've not done for quite a while. Even at the top ranks of our militaries there's no one around who has any experience of it. Our military and political leadership resemble more, say, 1914 than in 1918 or 19459 (and, trust me, that's not a good thing).
Modern Total War (MTW). If you want an idea of what that means, go back to the extensive research on nuclear weapons escalation and use that as your "start" point. We already had the ability, several times over, to obliterate life on this planet when this business began. Sure, we've cut the inventories overall but so what? There's still far more than would ever be needed to turn Earth into Mars, all in under 15-minutes. When was the last time 15-minutes had that relevance in your life?
One of the reasons WWI went so horribly wrong was that almost no one had the foggiest idea of how it might play out. Neither side went into that war expecting to be dragged down into years of murderous trench warfare. Both sides went into the war with large contingents of cavalry - guys on horses with swords and lances. They didn't have mass deployment of machine guns on their minds, that's for sure. They didn't foresee aerial warfare, chemical weapons, the introduction of tanks to the battlefield - and so much more.
Add to our naivete, a thick layer of hubris. We think we can deploy a rapid response force of 5,000 soldiers that can quickly accordion into 30,000 to nip any Putin adventurism in the bud. NATO has "an erection lasting more than four hours" for that one. At the top levels of the Alliance the bellicosity is searing. Maybe they're reminiscing of NATO's studly days staring down the Soviets back in the 60s. Are we so blinded with our sense of superiority that we imagine a shooting war with ten or twenty thousand troops wouldn't escalate to something far exceeding our contemplation?
Here at home we've got no end of Chickenhawks busily banging the war drums lately. Ignatieff introduced the Liberals to the notion of a "muscular foreign policy" and it seems to have stuck. There's no overt, "you're either with us or with the terrorists" policy in Canada but the opposition parties sure act as though there was. Every morning Mulcair steps outside to test which way the winds are blowing while Trudeau conferences his Bay Street advisers for his orders of the day.
We seem to want to militarize any real estate we can occupy within spitting distance of the Russian border. NATO talks about establishing "forward bases" in the Baltic states, lest Moscow get designs on their sovereignty. The very nature of forward bases is to define a front, a military front, and we're pressing it right up hard against Putin's doorstep. What could possibly go wrong?
And, on our side, we've already broken into various camps. There's NATO snarling angrily, straining against its chains, eager for the fray. Then there's the US and Britain tossing about the idea of arming the Ukrainians, conveniently leaving unmentioned what probably follows such a bold move. That puts them at odds with Hollande and Merkel who perhaps see the dangers more clearly and are on their, self-described last ditch tour to defuse the conflict before other nations get sucked into the malestrom.
It seems like we've amassed the perfect circumstances for backing ourselves into a war that we probably would regret fairly quickly. It's as though we're caught in a process that has no "reset" button. Hollande seems to acknowledge as much with obvious resignation.
Maybe all sides are already in this too deep to back down.
This reminds me of getting stuck taking shelter from a gale in a northern inlet on what had been a floating logging camp. It consisted of a number of vintage wood buildings sitting atop rafts of cedar logs. The buildings were being repurposed, renovated. The one we were inside had the plaster and lathe removed to reveal old Vancouver newspapers stuffed inside for insulation.
We obviously had a few hours to wait so I opened a few of these old papers going back to from 1936 to around 1941. There were daily accounts of Hitler's armies on the move through Europe and Japan's assault on China. As I read them I wondered how we didn't foresee world war returning and dragging us all in yet again. How could anyone read these reports, day by day, month after month and think anything else? And yet we did for it was unimaginable to us in those years that we would inevitably get swept up into a world on fire.
Merkel's right, keep Ukraine out of NATO. We don't need another country able to pull the Article 5 trigger.
In my view the 'grand bargain' that we need to bind the West and Russia requires a zone of buffer states between NATO and Russian positions. It would mean Old NATO, the original members, stepping back. Yet I think that possibility is already foreclosed.